As the 2022/2023 season has taken shape, one of the most interesting quirks of Sunderland’s form is that we’ve often looked far willing to play our natural game, and consequently more potent and likely to pick up results away from the Stadium of Light.
Yes, there have been games at home during which we’ve shown some exceptional attacking prowess- against Rotherham, Norwich and during the first half against Burnley, for example, but generally, we’ve posed more of a threat on the road that we have in front of our own supporters.
However, when you pass a test of the kind we did on Saturday, against a team whose physical approach is well known and didn’t disappoint with its predictability, that should only serve as a springboard for future home performances as we seek to make a lasting impression on the league’s top ten.
Before kickoff, I must admit that I had quite a nervous feeling about what was coming our way.
After a three-week layoff, I did worry that we might not be fully up to speed from the first whistle, and the first half was a one hell of an examination.
In the grandest of traditions, Millwall simply tried to kick their way past us by utilising their team of physically imposing men. However, after weathering that storm, we emerged for the second half and proceeded to outfox them with some great attacking play, eventually running out 3-0 winners.
Since he arrived, Tony Mowbray has generally done a solid job, not least in the face of a multitude of injury problems, but home victories have been scarce and this was arguably the most impressive yet, against a team who are certainly playoff contenders this season.
Ask twenty Sunderland supporters why they feel our home form hasn’t been up to scratch this season, and you’re likely to get a range of answers.
Poor game management (certainly a valid argument when you look back at QPR, Burnley, and Cardiff), the fact that we generally field a team that is set up for open, expansive football on the counter-attack, and the age-old dilemma of players feeling the weight of expectation are among the most common arguments, but at some stage, we’re going to have to solve the riddle.
The game against Cardiff was arguably the most glaring example of exactly what not to do at home, as our midfield was overrun and chasms appeared all over the pitch. There are times when you can be too exuberant and desperate to deliver, and on that day, we were made to look foolish.
On Saturday, however, what we brought to the table was discipline, particularly at 2-0 when the game was there to be won.
At that stage, the likes of Danny Batth, who was nothing short of a colossus yet again, were able to use their experience to full effect and guide their younger teammates through what can often be a fraught period of a game.
In the stands, I could hear phrases such as ‘Just don’t give them a goal now’ being repeated, but this time, the players didn’t waver.
Every Sunderland manager since 1997 has made references, some oblique and some obvious, to turning the Stadium of Light into a ‘fortress’ and to make it a horrible place for opposition teams to visit- a very noble and exciting vision, in theory.
To put it mildly, that goal has yielded mixed results over the years.
Yes, the place was often raucous and intimidating during the Peter Reid and Roy Keane years, but in recent years, as the club has endured some turbulent times, it’s often been a place where players wilt in the face of the challenge.
Promotion to the Championship hasn’t solved the issue of the atmosphere during games, but this is the best team we’ve had for years, playing some of the best football we’ve seen in a long time. For now, that’s more than good enough, and the players should take an enormous amount of confidence from their efforts on Saturday.
Playing at the Stadium of Light should be a memorable experience, particular for many of our younger players who’ve perhaps not sampled football at this level before.
They stood strong in the face of a real onslaught on Saturday, and there should be no fear of any team who visits our home between now and the end of the season.